When you come to a footnote, click your mouse or tap your finger on the number and it will take you to the (mostly sarcastic, sometimes funny) explanation. Then, if you click/tap the number again, it will take you back to the line you were reading. There is no escaping the footnotes. If you ignore them, they will be patiently waiting for you at the end of each chapter.
Ondine is pronounced On-deen, but you can say it in your head any way you like.
This is a great story, and like a good many great stories before it, it begins with a teenage girl. Her name is Ondine de Groot and she is fifteen. She has long dark hair past her shoulders, which is neat for about five minutes before it gets messy and stringy. Her eyes are dark brown and pretty, except when she’s rolling them. She also adores small animals, of which you will hear more in a moment.
Ondine’s story began exactly twelve years ago today, in a place called Brugel,1 a pretty country in Eastern Europe, which is well known for its old buildings.2
On the day this story began, Ondine was nearing the end of her time at Psychic Summercamp. As the name suggests, Psychic Summercamp was a place for students to spend their summer holidays developing their psychic and other extra-sensory skills. In some countries, students spend their holidays at adventure camp, fat camp or mathletics. In Brugel, they do things differently.
Back to Ondine. She was in a dormitory with three other girls (who were asleep on account of it being so early in the morning) and she awoke with a jolt.
“Saturn’s rings! It’s six o’clock! I’ve slept through the astral projection exam.” Ondine sat up and pushed the covers away. The bed’s throw rug fell to the floor, smothering the furry black ferret that lay curled up beneath.
“Melody, wake up,” she said, nudging the sleeping girl in the bunk above her. “What happened in the astral exam?”
It took Melody a few more nudges to wake up. Yawning, she swiped her mousy-blonde hair from her face, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and inspected it, then stopped as she realized she had an audience.
“Ah, sorry.” Melody looked embarrassed as she blinked herself awake. “What’s going on, what time is it? The sun isn’t even up.” The psychic lessons didn’t seem to have worked very well on her either.
“Shh, you’ll wake the others,” Ondine said. “Now, quick, what happened in the astral?”
“I . . . I don’t know. I must have slept through it!” Melody’s face crumpled and she made ready to cry. “I’m going to fail, aren’t I?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll fail more than you.” As Ondine looked around the room, she spotted the handle of her suitcase poking out from under her bed. It gave her an idea. “This entire thing is a waste of time, and a waste of our summer holidays. We’re supposed to be having fun with boys and falling in love, not studying. I’m going to run away to home.”
A great many girls of Ondine’s age would love to run away from home, but Ondine was the other way around. She’d had it up to here (hold your hand at eyebrow level) with the whole psychic thing and knew it was time to quit.
And another thing, how was she supposed to have fun and meet cute boys if she spent her school holidays in another kind of school?
While Melody watched the door for teachers, Ondine packed up her clothes and her gimgaws and doohickie whatsits and zipped the case closed.3
“Shouldn’t you tell Mrs Howser you’re leaving?” Melody asked.
“Pfft. She’s the psychic one, why should I bother?” Ondine looked at the sleeping forms of her remaining roommates. “You can tell the other two when they wake up.”
“How will you get home?” Melody asked.
Valid question. Psychic Summercamp was located on the outskirts of Brugel’s capital city, Venzelemma, and Ondine’s family lived right over on the other side.
“There’s a bus stop down the end of the street, so I’ll take that to central station. Then I’ll get the train the rest of the way home.” Ondine sounded pleased with her plan as she lifted the faux-fur- throw off the ferret and folded it into a messy rectangle-ish shape on the end of her bed.
The throw, not the animal. Ferrets don’t fold so well.
“What about Shambles?” Melody asked, looking at the sleeping animal on the ground.
Oh dear. Ondine hadn’t given much thought to the ferret, because she didn’t think the creature should be coming with her. Ondine was more your fluffy kitten-y type of girl, so she hadn’t given much attention that morning to the long and skinny bundle of black. Turning up at home, unannounced, before Summercamp finished would give her family enough of a fright. Turning up unannounced with a weasel in her hands might finish her mother right off.
“He’s a sweet thing, and he’s really taken to you.” Melody’s eyes were bright with possibilities.
“You’re right,” Ondine agreed.
During the weeks at camp, Ondine and Shambles the ferret had become unlikely buddies. He’d turned up one day and made himself at home, following Ondine about.4 He’d even come to classes with her. The thought of abandoning the little fella to the craziness of Summercamp and Mrs Howser made something twist in her tummy. Probably guilt. A bit of hunger too.
Then Shambles the ferret woke up, spun around a few times and stood up on his hind legs, looking like an elongated, begging puppy. If puppies had pointy noses, long whiskers and sharp teeth.
“And nobody else got a pet while they were here,” Melody said. “You were really lucky.”
Hmmm, what to do? It didn’t sit right with her conscience to leave him.
“I’ll take him with me and find him a good home,” Ondine said, scooping up the creature and tucking him into the crook of her arm. “Shambles, you’re going to have to behave yourself or I’ll leave you on the bus.” It was her way of trying to sound stroppy. The little fella was pretty cute once you got to know him.
So that’s how Ondine came to leave Psychic Summercamp on that warm summer’s morning, with a ferret wrapped around her neck like a scarf and the scent of geraniums and lavender in her nostrils as she walked along the flower-studded footpath to the bus stop.5
The wind blew her hair in wild directions, whipping at her lips and eyes. There was nothing she could do to prevent it; she needed both hands to carry her heavy case. Not even a spare hand for Shambles – he hung on to her collar.
It wasn’t until Ondine got off the bus and reached Venzelemma’s crowded central train station that the ferret spoke.
“Thank gooniss for tha–, I’m all bumpy and broke,” Shambles said with a deep Scottish accent, then climbed on to her head to get a better view. “Progress! The train’ll be here in a minute. When we get tae yer hoose we can eet, I’m fair starven.”
Ondine gasped and dropped her case on the platform in shock. Because, make no mistake about it, there was definitely a man’s voice coming from the ferret. Sure, summer was all about having fun and meeting boys, but not this kind!
Quickly, she found a place to sit down, then she hauled Shambles into her hands to have a good look at him, all the time wondering if she’d gone a bit . . . funny.
“I’ve lost my mind,” Ondine said. A furtive look around told her nobody else was paying them any attention. The station was full of gray-looking people heading off to work for the day, completely unaware of the teenage girl with scruffy brown hair holding a black ferret.
“Nae ye havnae, but ye can hear me,” Shambles added in his thick brogue. “Looks like somethin’ rubbed off at Summercamp.”
Ondine rolled her eyes. “Ma will be so pleased. All that gypsy blood in my veins and all I can do is talk to rodents.”
“I’m nae rodent, ye bampot, I’m a ferret. Completely different. Right then, hae comes the loco. Let me at yer neck.”6
“But . . . but!” Ondine’s brain turned to slurry as she tried to make sense of this talking animal. All the while heated embarrassment roared up her neck and face.
“No backing out now, lassie. I’m coming with ye. Now grab the case and on we get. And upon my honour, I promise to behave.”
What could she do? It was still such a shock that her new furry friend could talk. And why could she only hear him now? At that moment the train pulled in and Ondine had no more time for prevaricating.7
It was a tense ride home on the train, what with the uncomfortable wooden seats, a talking ferret wriggling about her neck and passengers giving her very strange looks. As soon as the engine arrived at her home station, Ondine grabbed Shambles away from her throat and put him on her shoulder.
His little paws reached up to the top of her head. He stretched and had a good look around.
“Oh, so ye live in this part of town, how very la-de-dah! No wonder yer parents have money tae pish away on psychic dafties.”
By this point you may have formed the opinion that Shambles was not your run-of-the-mill ferret, and you’d be right. You may have also formed the opinion that he’s saucy and cheeky, and you’d be right there too. But if you think he’s nothing but trouble, you’re wrong, although he does give that impression.
As keen as she was to race home, Ondine waited for the train to clear the station before she stepped off the end of the platform to walk across the tracks, looking both ways to make sure no other trains were coming. The pedestrian overpass would have been safer, but it was closed to the public until the official opening.
“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” Shambles said as he noted the direction Ondine was taking him. “The girl lives in a pub!”
The ferret spoke the truth. Ondine’s parents ran a hotel and public bar on the main road in a pretty swanky part of Venzelemma. Three floors tall and painted bright blue and white, the hotel towered over the neighbourhood. Even the newer buildings looked like old buildings to help them blend in.
The Station Hotel prided itself on being a family business, where everyone pitched in and helped. Not yet old enough to serve alcohol in the bar, Ondine worked in the dining room and helped out behind the scenes. A lot.
Most people think if your parents run a restaurant, you eat delicious five-course meals every night.
Ask anyone what it’s really like and they’ll tell you it’s nothing but work. Washing dishes, ironing tablecloths, cleaning the floors, chopping wood for the fire, keeping the fire going all night, preparing food. Look, the list just goes on and on.
But for Ondine, working at home with her parents appealed more than howling at the moon or looking for omens in tea leaves or reading palms or any other great wastes of time that sucked away her precious summer holidays.
“Wait up, we cannae just walk in. Yer mother will fair faint,” Shambles said, holding on to Ondine’s shoulder.
That made Ondine stop for a moment and think about her plan of action.
“She’ll be glad to see me,” she said. “Although I don’t know what she’ll make of you. She’s not the pet kind.”
“I’m nobody’s pet!” Shambles clenched his paws on his hips in frustration. “And dinnae tell no one about finding a new home for me, either. Yer the first person who’s heard me in scores of years, mebbe more. I’ve lost count. I need ye tae stick around and help me, because I think I’m losing my social skills.”8
Laughter caught in Ondine’s throat. It had been a trying morning to say the least, and she wasn’t used to lugging heavy things for long distances. Plates piled high with food were fine, because they only needed carrying from the kitchen to the dining-room tables. Heavy suitcases were another matter entirely.
“Are all ferrets like you? I mean, how come you can talk?”
“Because I’m nawt a real ferret. I’m Hamish McPhee, but I offended a witch and she turned me thus. I’ve bin like this for years. Powerful magic it was and all. Haven’t a gray hair on me. Thank gooniss she used a staying spell.”
Ondine’s eyes widened in surprise. “You offended a witch? Wow!”
“Aye. She took it badly.”
“You must have done something really awful to her.” Her mind reeled as she wondered what sort of offensive thing might make a witch turn a regular man into a weasel. A regular man! Ondine’s memory leapt back to her time in Summercamp, when she’d allowed Shambles to sleep in her dorm. Well, that was before she’d known what he really was. Now that she did know, there’d be no more of that!
“Aye, and I’m deeply ashamed,” Shambles admitted.
“What did you do then? And is this witch about to descend on me and demand the return of her familiar?”9
“I’m no familiar! They’re silly animals turned into fat-belly pets. I’ll have ye remember I’m a regular man living in reduced circumstances.”
“You’re stalling. What did you do?”
“Aw, I was a right neep. I was supposed tae partner her at a debutante ball. Ye know the ones, where the girls get all dolled up and look like brides? And then they get presented to some fancy-pants man, like a mayor or a duke.”10
“It must have been a while ago. Hardly anyone does a deb any more.”
“This girl took it real serious-like. And I didnae. I wasnae yer ideal partner, on account of the fact I had ma first taste of plütz that night.”11
His tone told Ondine he felt truly sorry for his actions, and she started to feel a bit sorry for him in return.
By now they’d reached the back door. Ondine fished around in her pockets for her key and made ready to let them in. The smell of fried breakfast foods wafted from the kitchen windows, making her tummy rumble.
“Aw, breakfast. I could murder some big fatty sausage,” Shambles said, his tongue licking the fur around his mouth in anticipation.
“You’re stalling,” Ondine said. “Tell me what happened, and then we’ll have food.”
“Ooooh, listen to ye! All grown up and sophisticated, like,” Shambles teased, then Ondine stared daggers at him and his voice dropped to a sombre tone. “I didn’t know she was a real witch, otherwise I wouldnae called her one. But she was getting snippy with me, so I ducked off and had some more plütz. It’s like peaches and rocket fuel that stuff, and I’ve nawt touched it since. Then she got really pished with me when I stepped on her feet and fell over. I ripped the lacy bit at the bottom of her skirt and then she got really mad. She called me pond scum. I called her a witch. She looked like her head might explode. She said, ‘You’re damn right I’m a witch. And you’re nothing better than a low-down weasel,’ and then she said I could stay like that.”
“Wow. And she turned you into a ferret, right there in front of everyone?”
“Naw, she turned me into a donkey! Of course she turned me into a ferret! She was fair affronted.”
Ondine gaped at him.
“Ferrets are smaller than weasels, but we’re the same family, so maybe I am a low-down weasel after all. But between us, I prefer ferret.”
Ondine giggled. “I think she did the right thing. Debutante balls take a lot of organizing, and a lot of rehearsals. I think you should apologize to this poor girl as soon as possible. Then you might be yourself again.” The thought of Shambles becoming himself made her wonder what he might look like if he were a real man again? His accent alone made her grin.
Opening the back door, the pungent odour of fried meats and old beer greeted them.
“Aww, that’s the good stuff.” Shambles took a noisy sniff.
“Ondine! What are you doing home?” her mother called out from the hallway.
“Hi, Ma, you look great. Have you lost weight? I love your hair.” Her mother looked as plump as ever, but her new burgundy-brown hairdo skimmed her face and made her look thinner. Flattery ought to put her in a good mood. Just to be on the safe side, Ondine adopted what she hoped was a pleading look on her face. “I . . . I got homesick so I came back.”
Ma stopped mid-stride, mouth open, when she saw the ferret on her daughter’s shoulder. “Heavens above! What is that?” She pointed to the ferret with one hand, while the other patted the ample bosom above her heart, as if the beating organ might leap from her chest.
It called for quick thinking on Ondine’s part, because her mother could be either furious or happy about the situation.
“He’s really tame. Please, Ma, let me keep him?”
But Shambles was having none of it. “That’s the one!” he cried out, finally finding his voice. He scurried down the back of Ondine’s vest. “That’s the witch!”
1 One of the dozens of former Eastern Bloc countries, Brugel is mostly famous for three things. It has the only hexagonal flag in the world. Its main export is plütz, which is a tasty yet highly volatile vodka made from peaches. It has also never won the Eurovision Song Contest.
2 From a strategic point of view, Brugel was so insignificant during World War Two that neither the Allies nor the Axis bothered to bomb it. This is why so many of its old buildings are still standing.
3 This was during the enormous gimgaw craze, so everyone had them. You won’t find them now though.
4 She’d found him face-deep in her secret stash of Brugelwürst sausage, a local delicacy.
5 The flowers did their best to mask the smell of the ferret, but the ferret easily overpowered them.
6 Bampot is a silly person. A Daftie. Gets low grades at school and later in life rarely earns more than minimum wage.
7 Venzelemma is home to one of the oldest elektrichka train fleets in Europe. Their sparse interiors and spine-jarring wooden bench seats evoke equal amounts of old world nostalgia and sciatica. Most physiotherapists in Brugel are located within hobbling distance of train stations.
8 Pure denial. Shambles lost his social skills years ago.
9 An animal form of supernatural spirit, who aids a witch in performing magic. Sometimes they’re helpful, but in most cases they’re useless. Have you ever seen a cat fetch the morning newspaper? Vacuum the floor? Make breakfast? Exactly.
10 Neep. Short for turnip.
11 Plütz is Brugel’s number one alcoholic export. It is made from fermented peaches, is 32 per cent proof and is the main ingredient in divorce proceedings.
Buy this book
Other Books In The Ondine Series